Call this show ‘Last in Space’

As Chris Ferguson prepares to command the space shuttle Atlantis, the Far Northeast native is heartened to know that family and friends will make the trip to Florida for the launch and return landing.

“I’ve enjoyed an incredible amount of support from the people in the Philadelphia area,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of Philly folks.”

Ferguson, 49, a captain in the United States Navy, is the pride of St. Martha Grammar School and Archbishop Ryan High School. He grew up on Amity Road.

In 1984, he received a degree in mechanical engineering from Drexel University. He earned a master’s in aeronautical engineering from the Navy Postgraduate School in 1991. He’s been assigned to the Johnson Space Center in Houston since 1998.

Atlantis will launch on Friday at 11:26 a.m. at Cape Canaveral. Ferguson will lead a four-person mission to the International Space Station. He’ll be joined by pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

The voyage will be his third to the space station. In 2006, he was the pilot on a 12-day Atlantis trip. In 2008, he was the commander on a 15-day trip aboard Endeavour.

On the upcoming 12-day mission, Ferguson and the others will deliver a multipurpose logistics module filled with supplies and spare parts to sustain operations at the space station; test the tools, technologies and techniques needed to robotically refuel satellites in space; and return an ammonia pump that recently failed on the station.

When the shuttle returns, it’ll be parked for good. NASA is ending the space shuttle program. In its place, the agency will focus on developing new spaceships and rockets for exploration of asteroids, the moon and Mars.

Ferguson likened the end of the shuttle program to getting rid of a first car. The vehicle is special, but too costly to keep.

“We do feel like we’re mourning a friend, but we’ll get over it,” he said during a June 30 conference call with reporters.

At the same time, he said the final launch should be a celebration of the space shuttle’s 30-year run.

The program started in 1981, and Atlantis made its maiden voyage in ’85. The upcoming mission will be the 33rd for Atlantis and 135th for the program.

Atlantis will be on permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center. Endeavour will retire to the California Science Center. Discovery will remain at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. Enterprise, which was used only for testing, will be housed at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan.

In the days before the launch, the astronauts are allowed to spend time only with their immediate families. Ferguson and his wife, Sandra, have three children, an 18-year-old daughter and sons ages 15 and 17. Once the shuttle returns, there will be a larger celebration.

Ferguson, who admits to some nervousness, said he’s been told by numerous people who view a shuttle launch that the event is a life-altering experience.

As for the shuttle itself, Ferguson calls it a “technological marvel.” The government has entrusted him to take the shuttle to space for two weeks and bring it home safely.

“That is one tremendous feeling,” he said.

Ferguson said he loves everything about space, including the food, air and comfort level. As for things he misses while in space, he points to everything from mountains to freshly cut grass to falling snow to, of course, his family.

On the upcoming trip, he will take one of his wife’s necklaces as a way of keeping her close. He describes her as a “closet space geek.”

During the mission, Ferguson and the other astronauts will look out the windows and take pictures, but they’ll mostly be focused on their work.

“We’re going to be extraordinarily busy,” he said.

Looking ahead, Ferguson will remain with NASA even though the space shuttle will be no more.

“The space business is in my blood,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot to offer.”

There’s another good reason for him to stay active. He’ll have three children in college in a few years. “I can’t quit anything at this point,” he said.

Ferguson said it’s fair to ask whether the space shuttle has been worth the cost. He believes it has been effective, pointing to the development of the space station.

“The space station will enable us to go well beyond low-Earth orbit,” he said.

The future space race, in Ferguson’s view, will be a marathon. He thinks NASA can travel to an asteroid or set up a permanent colony on the moon in 50 to 100 years.

In the next 30 to 40 years, he is hopeful that America can get to Mars.

“That, to me, is the holy grail in the near term,” he said. ••

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com